Sustainability has become a modern-day buzzword for the masses. We’ve all seen concepts in environmentalism increasingly used as a marketing tool for brands across virtually every industry, occasionally resulting in greenwashing and confusion.
Thankfully, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are becoming top of mind for consumers and government entities, meaning the pressure for corporations and businesses to reduce their environmental impact is here to stay.
Sustainability for businesses could include anything from initiating company-wide recycling programs, reducing overall energy use, optimizing environmentally efficient transportation, to participating in programs focused on social responsibility. With so many options to navigate, it can be difficult for businesses to know which options are the most effective at reducing their environmental impact.
Here we’ll clarify what sustainability means, what sustainability looks like in practice, and how these principles can be applied in business and ecommerce.
What is sustainability?
So, what does sustainability mean in 2023? Good question.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability as:
“The property of being environmentally sustainable; the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”
Many communities, industries, and individuals have varying definitions of sustainability. However, the overarching basic principle of sustainability is that everything living creatures need for survival and well-being is inherently linked to the well-being of the earth’s natural environment.
Sustainability is not a one-time action that individuals or organizations can comply with, it is an ongoing practice and mindset. UCLA Sustainability brilliantly approaches the term sustainable practices as those that “support ecological, human, and economic health and vitality”. We like how Forbes organizes total sustainability into four pillars:
- Social Sustainability,
- Economic Sustainability,
- Environmental Sustainability
- Human/Societal Sustainability
All pillars work together to inspire holistic, sustainable practices.
All in all, sustainability must involve maintaining environmental conditions so that humans and nature can successfully coexist for generations to come.
That’s right, we must coexist.
Why is sustainability important?
Sustainability: a brief history
Did you know that sustainability has been a “movement” for centuries? Indigenous communities around the world have been caretakers of the environment for thousands of years.
The Seventh Generation Principle from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an Iroquoian-speaking confederacy of First Nations peoples in northeast Turtle Island (North America), states that every decision made should consider how it will affect descendants seven generations into the future. The first written account of this philosophy is dated between 1142 to 1500 AD.
Did you know approximately 50% of the world’s land mass is occupied, owned, or managed by Indigenous and local communities, and about 40% of that area is declared protected or ecologically sound despite Indigenous peoples comprising only 6% of the global population?
Indigenous knowledge has been embraced by conservationists globally and many are finding more ways to incorporate indigenous traditional knowledge in approaches to sustainability.
Often when people discuss the beginning of the modern sustainability movement, the 1892 establishment of the Sierra Club by John Muir in response to the Industrial Revolution is cited. The Sierra Club was one of the world’s first large-scale environmental preservation organizations and acted as an inspiration for many future conservationists.
Since the Industrial Revolution, the modern sustainability movement has had many monumental moments.
In 1949, the United Nations (U.N). held the first conference dedicated to conservation called the U.N. Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources. This would eventually lead to the U.N. publishing Our Common Future, a document encouraging countries to collaborate on sustainable development efforts, which helped to designate sustainability as a global responsibility.
In 1995, the U.N. held the first Climate Change Conference (COP). Such conferences have led to the signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (an international agreement to commit to greenhouse gas reduction targets), the 2015 Paris Agreement, and the development of the Sustainable Development Goals.
All of these events, philosophies and conservation movements contributed to why sustainability is such a prevalent conversation today.
Examples of sustainability
When examples of sustainable practices are referenced, many people automatically think about environmental themes focused on environmental conservation and preservation.
While in essence, these are integral aspects of sustainability, overall sustainability is more nuanced than just cutting back on electricity use, planting trees, or designating protected areas.
The United Nations has developed sustainable development goals that are great to reference when looking for good examples of sustainable development practices.
Sustainability in business
Implementing sustainable practices and goals as a business has many benefits – aside from appeasing public pressure for sustainable initiatives. Climate change, the depletion of natural resources, and increasing demands on energy and food supplies are impacting supply chains in many ways. Therefore it is pressing that private and public organizations consider the ways in which they operate so that they can not only adapt to supply chain constraints but find ways to help mitigate the organization’s environmental impact in order to prevent further exacerbating these pressures.
One concept that has been prominent in the sustainability sector is the idea of a circular economy. Circular economy refers to a model of production, and consumption, that focuses on keeping existing materials, products, and services in circulation for as long as possible. The goal of a circular economy is to limit the constant introduction and consumption of new materials, products, or services in order to significantly reduce the environmental impact of consumption behaviors that result from a linear economy.
A linear economy is the current global standard of consumption and refers to the classic cycle of creating a product, purchasing it, using it, then disposing of it. Businesses dedicated to promoting sustainability have begun finding ways to incorporate a circular business model so that products or services can remain in circulation longer, rather than continuously creating new products.
There are many internal benefits a business might experience after implementing sustainable practices.
- Employee morale can increase due to working with or for a company that reflects their personal values. In fact, over 70% of employees claim that environmentally sustainable companies are more attractive employers.
- Due to the impact of climate change governments are beginning to require new levels of enterprise accountability. Implementing sustainable metrics such as greenhouse gas (GHG) accounting and reduction strategies early on could put you ahead of the curve!
- 55% of consumers say environmental sustainability is important to them when selecting a brand. Transparent sustainability practices could mean more loyal customers and overall revenue.
Increase recruitment efforts, stay ahead of the curve, and generate more revenue – incorporating sustainability in your business model is better for business!
Creating a Sustainable Business Strategy
Sustainability can look different for every brand. Here are some examples of how businesses can incorporate sustainability in their business strategy:
- Utilize alternative power sources or workplace appliances in order to improve energy management in office buildings.
- Partaking in carbon accounting and offsetting programs.
- Research and implement infrastructure changes that reduce GHG emissions and water use (such as utilizing grey water in office spaces or applying window films to aid with office temperature control).
- Partner with local natural resource protection initiatives.
- Make sustainability a part of company culture by implementing sustainability challenges, company/office-specific composting and recycling programs or company-wide environmental education sessions.
- Review existing supply chains to identify ways to mobilize a circular economy.
- Conduct Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) on products or services to identify areas to reduce environmental impact.
As our planet increasingly faces the negative effects of climate change, each industry has begun reflecting on ways they can become more sustainable.
Ecommerce (electric commerce) refers to buying and selling products online. Ecommerce is available 24/7, offering an unlimited shopping experience to consumers. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 digital channels have become by far the most popular shopping alternative method, which has resulted in an alarming increase in online purchases.
By 2030, urban last-mile delivery emissions are set to increase by over 30% in 100 cities globally as demand for last-mile delivery is expected to grow by 78%. With ecommerce related emissions forecasted to increase significantly in the coming years, it is important to review the relationship between ecommerce and sustainability.
Why sustainability is important in ecommerce
Ecommerce is growing, that is a fact. And while there are various ways online shopping plays a role in our environment’s demise, today we’ll stick to returns and shipping.
Let’s start with returns. Approximately 17 billion items are being returned online each year. That equals 4.7 metric tons of CO2 emitted from returns alone. Decreasing that number by 10% would be enough to power 57,000 homes for an entire year.
And now, shipping.
The fast delivery options available and the opportunity to purchase almost whatever, whenever, have helped to drastically increase ecommerce rates of consumption. Over the past two years, the average time from purchase to delivery has declined from 5.2 days to 4.3, 3.2 in Amazon’s case.
We are creatures of ease and often consumers are unaware of the impact that having something tomorrow, versus three days from now, can have on the environment. The easiest way to lessen the environmental effect of shipping is through the consolidation of deliveries.
Ecommerce has significantly decreased the number of packages dropped off per mile which leads to more trucks on the road and as a result, higher greenhouse gas emissions. In a worst-case scenario where a courier van makes one delivery per trip, the total carbon emissions could be 35 times larger than for a fully loaded van. While this does not occur frequently, last-mile courier services, like Amazon, deliver only a select few orders often in a personal vehicle.
By 2030, it is estimated that the environmental impact of ecommerce will be higher than the impact of the largest 100 urban areas worldwide. It is expected that the total emissions caused by parcel and freight shipping are forecasted to generate close to 25 million tons of CO2.
Sustainability is no longer just a marketing buzzword for ecommerce brands, it is a critical mindset that must be incorporated into ecommerce business models.
All hope is not lost! There are many opportunities for ecommerce to implement sustainable practices in order to combat some of these adverse environmental impacts which we will review in some of the following sections.
How ecommerce brands can be more sustainable
Here are some specific examples of how to incorporate sustainability in an ecommerce business model:
- Optimize shipping routes to minimize emissions.
- Reduce the use of packaging materials.
- Review existing supply chains to identify ways to mobilize a circular economy.
- Conduct LCAs on products or services to identify areas to reduce environmental impact.
- When you can’t reduce, offset product manufacturing, shipping, use, and disposal emissions.
Example of sustainable ecommerce
One brand that does sustainability well is Goodfair, an apparel brand whose goal is to encourage customers to “go beyond shopping secondhand and become full-fledged conscious consumers”.
The Goodfair mission is “no new things” which helps to reduce the need for low-wage factories while also combatting clothing waste and pollution that are the result of fast fashion.
We love their holistic approach to sustainability within the very fibers of their company model.
In addition to this, Goodfair has also partnered with EcoCart to provide customers with a carbon-neutral shipping option at checkout—ensuring that sustainable practices are included at each stage of their product’s life.
Common Questions About Sustainability
What are the 3 main principles of sustainability?
The concept of sustainability can be broken down into the three principles of “people, planet, and profits”.
This refers to the idea that for a business, organization, or initiative to be sustainable, it must be able to conserve natural resources (planet), promote and support a healthy workforce and community (people), while simultaneously generating enough revenue to achieve long-term financial viability.
Implementation for brands across operations can look like the following:
- Environment: what strategies are in place to create or maintain businesses with minimal environmental impacts?
- Economy: how does a business find balance between the profits that it seeks whilst discouraging overconsumption?
- People: businesses can merge the two previous pillars through social commitments and by implementing practices that are respectful to the people involved throughout the supply chain.
What are the four types of sustainability?
We know what sustainability is but how is it categorized?
There are four “types” of sustainability, or rather four subcategories that when combined outline a holistic approach to sustainable practices. The four types of sustainability were actually derived from the three pillars of sustainability.
The four types of sustainability are:
- Social Sustainability: which focuses on recognizing the impact actions can have on the global community and works towards protecting future generations
- Human/Societal Sustainability: this focuses on the sustainment or improvement of human resources/culture within a society (e.g. health, education, and welfare)
- Economic Sustainability: by definition refers to the ability of a country, organization, or business to support a specified level of economic production indefinitely
- Environmental Sustainability: processes, procedures, or governance that focuses on preserving the strength and stability of earth’s natural capital (e.g. land, air, water, minerals)
Why is sustainability important in business?
As consumers increasingly prioritize environmentalism, it is important that businesses adapt to these needs by finding ways to reduce their impacts on the planet through various sustainability initiatives.
Aside from public pressure as the effects of climate change are felt worldwide– and disproportionately by marginalized communities–businesses that adversely impact the environment in any capacity have a global responsibility to reflect on their business practices and implement sustainable initiatives to help mitigate these impacts.
Conclusion: Sustainability is a responsibility for all
Finding ways to incorporate sustainability into your brand can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. However, there are many creative and innovative ways individuals and businesses can turn sustainability from a buzzword to a daily practice. Reach out to learn how EcoCart can help you with your sustainability journey.